The “Girl Dad,” the dad who is fully bonded with his daughters and knows the rich rewards of raising them, is broadly thought of as a modern invention. But men have had daughters, and even gotten along splendidly with them, since well before the appellation came into vogue, all the way back to frontier days. Under duress from that life, those dads taught their daughters field surgery and wilderness survival techniques, how to track men over hill and dale, marksmanship, and the cathartic value of taking one’s bloody revenge on he who has wronged them.
Suffice to say that Colton Briggs (Nicolas Cage) isn’t the ideal Girl Dad from a 2022 perspective, but he’s the Girl Dad we get in Brett Donowho’s The Old Way, a Western-by-numbers film that sets a target for itself the size of a barn and still misses. Retired gunslinger with a violent past? Check. A new leaf in life turned over by falling unexpectedly in love with a good woman? Check. A precocious, wily daughter he’s somewhat distant from? Check. A gang of scoundrels who drop in on the gunslinger’s wife and the wily daughter’s mother when they’re both away from the house, and execute her in retribution for the gunslinger’s past sins? Check. The rest of the film’s plot falls into place like a game of Connect Four, with Briggs setting out on the trail of gentleman villain James McAllister (Noah Le Gros), accompanied by his child, Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), in an unorthodox version of Take Your Daughter to Work Day.
We witness Briggs’ crime against young James in the film’s opening, slaying the boy’s own dad in self-defense after a chaotic shootout between the man’s relatives and the town’s crooked authorities. It isn’t personal for Briggs. But it is for James, whose path is altered by Briggs’ actions, setting up the film’s progression and themes. The Old Way is about a man’s years and bad deeds catching up to him at a point in his life when he’s reformed. It’s a trope as old as classic Westerns like Heaven with a Gun, More Dead Than Alive, and Shane, and even older still; it’s also as recent as the John Wick films, among others. “Trope” isn’t a dirty word, of course, but tropes only work as well as people deploy them. Donowho constructs a unique hook in the way Briggs and Brooke relate to one another: They’re sociopaths ahead of George E. Partridge’s time.
“My entire life, even as a boy, I knew,” Briggs confesses to Brooke by firelight, about an hour into the movie. “I knew I was different.” Cage reads the line with a begrudging surrender, pushing melancholy together with self-reflection. He didn’t cry as a baby. He learned how to mask his impassivity as a kid. He grew up into a stone cold murderer, cut from the same cloth as Preacher’s Saint of Killers, as mean as a rattlesnake and three times as deadly. It’s a common refrain for those who live by the gun. Less common is any interest in how men like Briggs pass their casual indifference to life to their offspring, which gives The Old Way a spark of originality.
That campfire scene is the film’s apex: Cage and Armstrong play off of one another in perfect harmony, commiserating over what passes as grief for their characters with a welcome sober punch. In this moment, Donowho leans on the sociopath idea, only to ease off for the story’s remainder, choosing instead to follow his chosen Western blueprint to its expected, worn-out conclusion. Given how much Donowho’s own ideas freshen up that blueprint, his eventual reliance on familiarity is a disappointment. On the other hand, he’s a solid filmmaker. There’s a merciless pop to The Old Way’s gunfights and a sweep to its visuals, whether capturing American vistas or dusty hamlets on the open range, fleeting though these qualities may be.
Donowho rightly affords Le Gros sufficient screen time to fill out his character’s grudge against Briggs. But the movie asks Le Gros to spend much of that time sneering from behind his beard instead of making James a fully realized man on par with Cage’s Briggs. At the same time, Briggs is also over-mythologized through rambling exposition delivered by Marshall Jarret (Nick Searcy). It’s a ponderous task of dubious worth that soaks up too much of Donowho and screenwriter Carl W. Lucas’ material. Cage makes Briggs larger than life by himself; the extra hype undermines Cage’s performance as well as The Old Way’s strongest merit: His chemistry with Armstrong. When constructed around their rapport, the film is a sight to see. But when Donowho brings The Old Way back to the well-trod ground of old Westerns, it’s just plain old.
Director: Brett Donowho
Writer: Carl W. Lucas
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Noah Le Gros, Nick Searcy, Clint Howard, Abraham Benrubi, Shiloh Fernandez, Kerry Knuppe
Release Date: January 6, 2023
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.